After much hype, the Himpun gathering at Shah Alam Stadium on Saturday was a non-event. The dismal attendance of roughly 5,000 hankering souls was a total letdown from the expected one million.
Despite the claim that Himpun was a success by the organisers, it was clear that it was more of a self-reassurance. Himpun failed miserably in their effort to instigate thinking Muslims into supporting their crusade.
Their assertion that it was an awareness campaign was very difficult to swallow. The mainstream media, especially Utusan Malaysia,had been harping on this issue for weeks. It must have been a real disappointment that despite the good weather, the incessant stimulation had failed to result in the expected turnout.
One of the more conspicuous banners during the event reads: ‘Melayu Sepakat, Islam Berdaulat’ ('When Malays unite, Islam becomes sovereign').
For many Islamic workers, this slogan does not sound unfamiliar. It belongs to an Islamic movement that claims to be the “true” representative of ‘al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon’ - the Muslim Brotherhood; Isma or Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia.
One is left to wonder whether their unabating claim of being the only movement that truly follows the methodology of da’wah(propogation) of the Muslim Brotherhood is truly well-founded. It may not be presumptuous for anyone who reads articles on their website to make a conclusion of how bigoted they are.
As expected, a former leader of Abim - the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, Yusri Mohamad, was the first speaker during the gathering. This is not surprising since he was the “war general” during the Lina Joy issue and is currently the president of Pembela - a loose coalition of Muslim organisations in defence of Islam.
Yusri (left) claimed that there is no greater infringement of human rights other than apostasy.
Most notable among the subsequent speakers were the Perak Mufti, Harussani Zakaria, and Himpun co-chairperson Azmi Abdul Hamid.
Harussani claimed that the Malays are the most special race in the world as all Malays are “bound to Islam in the constitution”.
Meanwhile, Azmi defended the right of Himpun to hold a gathering. It was a democratic right enshrined in the constitution, he said.
He also read out the 10 Himpun resolutions that include demands for an Anti-Apostasy and Proselytisation Act. And this will be the main focus of our discussion.
We have seen so far the collusion between the Islamist camps and the nationalists in promoting their main agenda in defending the faith.
Both camps agreed on one fundamental issue that faith is an issue that falls under the domain of the state. Hence their call for the state to intervene by enacting an Act that would prevent Muslims from leaving the faith and non-Muslims from propagating their faith among Muslims.
It is inexplicable that a great religion such as Islam requires such an Act to protect its believers from abandoning it.
A religion that has survived throughout all the different ages from its inception suddenly needs a protective Act to ensure its survival? Has Islam, a religion that always speaks to reason, turned to become authoritarian in nature? Has it become so outdated that it is unable to face the challenges of modernity that knows no boundary that it requires such an Act to protect it? Why do Muslims have to live in this siege mentality, a defensive and paranoid attitude that others are hostile towards them?
One of the most celebrated features about Islam is that it honours freedom of conscience. And the most oft-quoted verse is: “There shall not be any coercion in matters of faith” [2:256]
This verse is one of the many other verses that affirm the principle of free choice in matter of personal belief.
Many quarters among the adherents of the faith, scholars not excluded; have an interpretation that the verse only means that non-believers should not be coerced into the religion. However once the faith is professed, there is no way out.
Similarly a person, who is born a Muslim, must profess the faith, despite it being contrary to the entire percept of freedom of conscience.
Suffice to say that the Qur’an is replete with evidence apart from the quoted verse above that depict human as a free agent empowered to make his or her own free choice. The argument that once someone is a Muslim, then he or she must remain a Muslim forever is nothing but a fallacy.
Such an argument does not render the true message of freedom of belief. Since Islam etymologically means to attain inner peace through willing and voluntary submission to God, it becomes inconceivable in attaining that peace if someone is coerced to become a Muslim or to remain so against his free will.
Such an argument no matter under what excuse and justification is inconsistent with the main tenet of the Qur’an. It is against the incontrovertible verses in the Qur’an that upholds freedom of conscience that is above all an inner feeling of acceptance and conviction.
Another main evidence that is often cited as a basis for state interference in matters of faith is the act of Abu Bakr, the first caliph after the Prophet in waging war against Musailamah 'al-Kazzab', ('Musailamah The Liar') who claimed prophethood after the death of the Prophet.
The defenders of faith believed that this is indisputable evidence that the state has the authority to intervene when it involves believers leaving the faith.
As said before, faith is a personal conviction. The state has no authority to interfere in one’s choice of faith. One is answerable to God for the decision he or she makes in her life.
One can never find a single verse in the Qur’an that forbids a person to embrace or leave a faith he or she does not believe in. A state has a responsibility to monitor any forces that might seek to deny people of their freedom of belief, either embracing or leaving the religion.
The state can only interfere if an act of apostasy is associated with evidence of treason and sedition, since they are state matters.
Hence the action of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, was made in his capacity as a leader of a state who views the act of apostasy as an act of treason and aggression against the state. In Islamic terminology, this is known as ‘siyasah syar’iyyah’ - syari'ah-based political decisions - and implies that decisions and policies can be taken by a leader on matters for which no specific ruling could be found in the syari’ah.
Siyasah syar’iyyah is tantamount to acting on maslahah, or public interest, which the lawgiver has neither upheld nor over-ruled.
Rachid Ghanoushi, a Tunisian Islamist, founder and former exiled leader of Hizb an-Nahdah - the Renaissance Party - held the opinion that ‘riddah’ - turning away from religion, or apostasy - which was the first challenge faced by Abu Bakr, was more of a military insurrection than an act of apostasy from religion.
Meaning to say that Ghannoushi viewed ‘riddah’ as an act of treason and aggression towards the state and not simply an act of apostasy or turning away from religion.
As a concluding remark, it is pertinent to emphasise that freedom of belief operates as a safeguard against any sort of oppression from a superior source of power.
The much-touted Anti-Apostasy and Proselytisation Act is not only against the spirit of the Qur’an in ensuring freedom of conscience and freedom of belief, but instead promotes the emergence of a community of hypocrites or ‘munafiqeen’.
This is the ultimate outcome when a state started enforcing its power in preventing Muslims from leaving the faith they do not believe in any more.
Name it ‘amar ma’ruf nahi munkar’ - enjoining good, forbidding evil - or whatever Islamic concepts, the only effect is that it will only depict Islam as an intolerant religion that weighs on power and authority instead of a religion that speaks to reason.
AHMAD FAROUK MUSA was trained as a cardiothoracic surgeon. He is an academic at Monash University and chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Front, an intellectual movement that focuses on youth empowerment.